How listening to music during exercise can give you a workout boost and make physical activity less painful

From the lyrics to tempo, music can dramatically affect performance by changing a person’s mind-set or distracting from discomfort

Kashmira Gander
Monday 19 September 2016 13:17 BST
Some sporting organisations fear that music is so potent it can give an edge over athlete’s competitors, prompting bans
Some sporting organisations fear that music is so potent it can give an edge over athlete’s competitors, prompting bans (kosmos111/iStock)

Chances are that the punchy first chords of “Eye of the Tiger”, the soundtrack to classic boxing movie Rocky III, conjure up images of sporting prowess and success in your mind. It’s probably even on your motivational gym playlist to help you pummel the punching bag (don’t worry, your secret is safe with us).

Popping ear buds in before a workout is habitual for many of us and exercising without a backing track unthinkable. A recent survey by Runners World found that 75 per cent of respondents consider that jogging to music is beneficial.

Just how music can fuel exercise – when it becomes what is known as an ergogenic aid – is a recent field of scientific study which experts have been exploring for two decades. Their research shows the components of music, from the lyrics to the tempo, can acutely affect performance by changing a person’s mind-set or distracting from discomfort, as Dr Costas Karageorghis, reader of sports psychology at Brunel University, argues in his book Applying Music in Exercise and Sport.

And it’s not just your average runner in the park that relies on the power of music, explains Dr Karageorghis. Even athletes plug in to music to psych themselves up to find that sweet spot known as “the zone”.

Studies show that athletes can associate a specific piece of music with the optimum state of mind for exercise over time. In fact, some sporting organisations fear that music is so potent it can give an edge over other competitors, prompting bans when the sport is being performed.

“The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, is particularly well known for his use of a brash and aggressive hip-hop playlist in the competitive arena,” says Dr Karageorghis “He is able to block out the pre-race hullaballoo, focus intently on the task at hand, and reinforce his identity as the imperturbable principal of the pool through his distinctly rap-centric soundtrack.”

Yet most people are not harnessing music to its full potential, says Dr Karageorghis, who believes his book is the first to formalise how music can be applied to exercise, be you an athlete or a reluctant gym-goer.

“Music can have a profound effect on our emotional state and every facet of music can contribute towards this,” he explains.

Dr Karageorghis also admits that there are cases where music can be detrimental to exercise. The distinction comes down to whether a person has what he describes as an “associative” or “dissociative” attentional style. For instance, gym fanatics and elite athletes who continuously monitor their pace and energy levels in order to achieve optimum performance can find music too distracting. Dissociators, on the other hand, rely on stimulation to divert their attention from the pain.

Dr Karageorghis has studied the effects of exercise and sport for organisations including British Athletics, England Rugby and Nike (ESPNMag)

Dr Karageorghis says music could therefore be used to tackle the obesity epidemic. “We have a huge problem with inactivity, obesity and type II diabetes in the Western world, and I am convinced that music and exercise form a large part of the solution. I have this theory that if the NHS were to pay couch potatoes to engage in thrice-weekly exercise-to-music sessions, it would make a huge long-term saving in their budget.”

Dr Costas Karageorghis’s top tips for putting together the perfect workout playlist

  •  Marry the music with the activity and the mental state you want to achieve. For instance fast, loud rhythmical music, that is percussive and bass-drive is best for psyching yourself up before weight training.
  •  The tempo and rhythm should be matched with the rate of movement and pattern of the activity. So a waltz in the ¾ time signature would likely be a poor accompaniment for a run.
  •  Don’t choose music that changes time signatures half way through, like “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles.
  •  Syncopated music, like salsa or jazz, can make bipedal activities quite challenging because the emphasis is on the off-beat.
  •  As a general rule faster music at 130 to 140 bpm is best for very intense exercise, like rowing.
  •  Positive, affirmative lyrics – like those that tell you to “move it” or “push” it – are proven to boost motivation.
  •  Using music that reminds you of a positive time in your life make great additions to playlists.
  •  Choose music in a major key – known as the “happy key”.
  •  Music with 85 to 95 bpm – often found in rap - or 170-190 bpm – like thrash metal or rock – is best for running.
  •  Try using a song with a faster pace than your comfort zone to help reach new fitness targets. 

Studies into amateur running clubs, for example, have shown that music prevents joggers from hearing heavy breathing or pounding footsteps of themselves or those around them which can be demotivating. In this way, suggests Ian Gummery, Course Leader in Sport Psychology and Coaching at London Metropolitan University, other distractions can achieve similar effects to music.

“Thinking of other things such as an upcoming holiday, or even working through a current problem in your mind which may be totally unrelated to sport can achieve the same effect,” he says.

Dr Costas Karageorghis chimes that verbal encouragement – like being yelled at by a personal trainer – can also boost performance, as well as finding an exercise buddy with similar goals and fitness level to stoke friendly competition. Still, nothing works quite like music, says Dr Karageorghis – not even downing a double espresso before hitting the treadmill.

So, what is the secret to piecing together the perfect workout playlist? Research suggests that rhythm is the most important factor for the average gym-goer, says Dr Karageorghis, whereas those competing at a professional level are more likely to benefit from music they have a strong emotional connection with.

And if hip-hop is good enough for Michael Phelps, that’s a good enough starting point for us.

Applying Music in Exercise and Sport by Dr Costas Karageorghis will be released in the UK on 14 October

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